Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Thank You, Benjamin Franklin!
As a letterpress printer, I’m one of the many admirers of Benjamin Franklin, born 305 years ago (1706) this coming Monday the 17th. This talented gentleman became renowned not only as a printer and writer, but as a statesman, scientist, philosopher, and American patriot. Certainly life today would have been different if Franklin had never lived: he invented the odometer, lightning rod, Franklin stove, glass harmonica, swim fins, and bifocal lenses, and came up with the ideas for daylight savings time, fire departments, public hospitals, street cleaning, political cartoons, and public libraries. He secured the crucial allegiance of France during the American Revolutionary War, without which the United States might well not have won its independence.
But it’s for his printing and writing that I appreciate Ben Franklin the most. First, he was involved with printing for much of his life. He began as an apprentice, continued as a journeyman, and carried on an active printing business in Philadelphia. Through shrewd management, one shop grew into a network of print shops by his retirement. Despite his many accomplishments, Franklin considered himself a printer first, composing his famous epitaph starting, “The body of B. Franklin, Printer; (Like the cover of an old book, Its contents worn out, and stripped of its lettering and gilding) Lies here...”
Ben Franklin was a wonderful writer, especially with short, pithy sayings that are perfect for printing. These gems from Poor Richard’s Almanac are pretty much timeless: “Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.” “He’s a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.” “Necessity never made a good bargain.” “Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.” “When the well’s dry we know the worth of water.” and “God helps them that help themselves.” One of my favorites, which I believe and live by, is “Fish and company stink in three days.” It’s really true. My husband and I try never to stay at anyone’s house for more than three days at a time.
Finally, I admire the fact that Franklin was an independent, self-made man. He wasn’t born to wealth or privilege, but rose through ingenuity and hard work. His path to success wasn’t easy, but he had the grit and determination to make his own luck.
In 2006 my husband Bob and I had the rare opportunity to see Benjamin Franklin’s press firsthand, as part of an exhibit on “Benjamin Franklin, In Search of a Better World, 300 Years” hosted by the Missouri Historical Society where Bob works. And my husband got to demonstrate printing at the museum to groups of schoolchildren. The kids printed commemorative Franklin bookmarks on our Baltimorean tabletop press, which was a thrilling experience for them.
We’ve enjoyed printing pieces about Benjamin Franklin over the years, and we look forward to doing many more. And as a printer I’ve taken one of Ben’s sayings to heart: “Doest thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that is the stuff of which life is made.”